Wine experts, sommeliers and masters - oh my!

Wine experts, sommeliers and masters - oh my!

April 24, 2018

So you might have heard of wine experts - the people that know their stuff (usually self-proclaimed, of course). Then there are sommeliers, who are the people most knowledgeable about matching food and wine, most often found working in fine dining restaurants and other high-end establishments. The top tier, however, you might not be familiar with, as there aren’t exactly plenty of them around: those people who call themselves Masters of Wine. Oooh!

So what do these titles mean? What can these people do, and would it be worth getting a qualification in wine...?

Wine experts

Depending on how committed you are, anyone can apply themselves and become a (self-proclaimed) wine expert in a year or less. Wine knowledge is accumulative: you may find that you will pick things up more easily over time, and start to progress fairly fast. As with most things, anyone who has the dedication and self-motivation will do well in collecting this knowledge.

There are generally nine steps to becoming a wine expert:

  1. Developing your palate;
  2. Finding your ‘lightbulb moment’ wine: something that clicks the pieces into place;
  3. A plateau of trying to discover new favourite wines;
  4. Reading and research;
  5. Drinking very deep, very bold reds;
  6. Expanding the palate further with weird and wonderful wines;
  7. Palate fatigue: wishing to switch to more subtle and elegant wines;
  8. Rediscovering and finding a new appreciation for sparkling, sweet and dessert wines; and
  9. Being a wine expert.

As this is really a personal journey, when you reach the final step is up to you. Generally speaking, though, wine experts can look at a wine list and pick out a wine confidently, even if they don’t recognise the names, they’ll have a solid grasp of wine varietals and regions. They can pair wine and food fairly easily, but recognise there is still an enormous amount of information to learn.


Generally speaking, sommeliers really know their stuff - although this title isn’t technically a qualification, either. Presenting, opening and pouring wine is something a sommelier takes seriously, requiring the utmost attention to etiquette. The next time you’re in a fancy restaurant or upmarket wine bar, take note of how the wine is presented and served. Sommeliers also may be responsible for developing wine lists and training the other restaurant staff. Working alongside the kitchen, they pair and suggest wines that will best complement items on the menu. They need to know a huge amount about not just wine, but also how food and beer, spirits and other beverages work in harmony.

To become a sommelier, you need to undertake three basic steps of wine education (similar to the above, usually self-directed), start working in the industry, and finally, get a sommelier certificate.

Although we’ve listed the last point as a step, many sommeliers working in the industry don’t actually have a certificate - although if the jobs market is particularly tight, it can certainly give a sommelier looking for work that edge over the competition.

And finally, the mysterious Masters

A Master of Wine (also known as ‘MW’) is someone who not only has a very cool title, but has passed exams demonstrating their deep knowledge of all aspects of wine, and can clearly communicate these elements. Once they pass the examinations, the candidate becomes a member of the Institute of Masters of Wine, a global community which tightly controls the wine industry’s most prestigious qualification.

A Master of Wine has demonstrated the most in-depth knowledge and ability possible in the art, science and business of wine. They have an unrivalled level of both practical and theoretical knowledge, and work across all disciplines within the wine industry, from winemakers, oenologists and viticulturists through to shippers, retailers and writers.

There are currently 370 Masters of Wine living in 28 countries across five continents, of which 125 are women. There are 13 Masters of Wine in New Zealand.

If you wanted to become a Master of Wine, you need to pass an assessment, the theoretical and practical components of the examination, as well as submit a research paper. You also must be a bound signatory to the Institute's code of Conduct. Not an easy process! In fact, the study takes a minimum of three years - but in most cases it will take longer. Not only this, but you’ll need to factor in travelling to Adelaide, Sydney, or Hong Kong for parts of the course delivery if you wanted to complete it in this part of the world, and it’ll set you back at least NZ$20,000 in course fees - without considering the travel. Yikes.

We admire people who know wine inside out - as it’s no mean feat for such a complicated product. Although most people are always keen to learn more, it might be a bit out of most people’s reach (including ours!) to become a Master of Wine. It is, however within everyone’s reach to become a wine expert - and we look forward to helping you on that journey, one month at a time.


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